Today’s review is a first for the blog, as whilst I have posted about novels, short stories, non-fiction titles, plays, TV series, films and even comic books, I have not until today reviewed a map. But then this is not any old map…
Published by Herb Lester Associates, designed and illustrated by Ryan Bosse and written by Caroline Crampton, host of the excellent Shedunnit podcast, this is a literary map of Britain which focuses on 44 of the key places associated with one of our favourite crime writers.
The blurb provided writes:
‘Agatha Christie littered England with corpses. At her whim, victims met their end by inventive means from Cornwall to Northumberland and points between. Now the devoted reader can follow this deadly trail using the enclosed large-format fold-out map and guide, which charts the real-life locations where many of her stories unfold, along with places she lived and visited.’
For each location Caroline has written a short paragraph detailing the time Christie spent there, or how it inspired or popped up in her work. There are lots of unfamiliar locations so hardcore Christie fans will have plenty to learn as well as Christie novices. In particular I especially enjoyed reading about:
- How the Old Pier, Bournemouth, was the inspiration for the fictional town Leahampton, a location name which crops up in Christie’s N or M?, as well as in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death. This example illustrates Caroline’s careful eye for detail in her location writeups.
- How the pool in The Hollow, was borrowed from a friend of Christie’s, who is mentioned in the novel’s dedication. That friend was Francis L. Sullivan and he played Poirot in some of the stage adaptations.
- Where the inspiration for Miss Marple’s name came from and the locations in which various TV adaptations have situated St Mary Mead.
- The real-life inspiration for the hotel in At Bertram’s Hotel.
- How one location, under different names, could crop up multiple times in Christie’s work such as Burgh Island which appears in And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun, and Abney Hall, which finds a literary counterpart in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Secret of Chimneys and They Do It with Mirrors.
To find out more about how the map came into being I fired a few questions off to Caroline, who very kindly found the time to answer…
How did you come up with the idea of making Agatha Christie’s England?
Ben from Herb Lester got in touch with me after finding the podcast because he was interested in exploring a collaboration. He had already published a couple of literary-themed guides with a crime fiction element (such as The Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles and The Hardboiled Apple, and suggested that I contribute something focused on British detective fiction. Agatha Christie felt like the obvious focus, both because of her extensive oeuvre and her large fanbase. I did some preliminary research to make sure that there were enough interesting places to include, and then embarked on the project feeling quite daunted at the sheer amount of books I needed to reread in order to do it properly.
How did you go about researching the locations mentioned on the map? In what ways did Christie’s stories provide ‘clues’? Were there any locations you knew straight away you wanted to feature?
Some of the places from Christie’s own life, such as Greenway in Devon and her house in Wallingford, felt like they definitely needed to be there from the start. I was also keen to get a few of my own favourites in, such as Burgh Island (which appears in both And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun) and the hotel that inspired At Bertram’s Hotel. I made a shortlist of those to start with, and then I just tried to skim through as much of Christie’s original work as I could and made a note any time a promising-seeming place was mentioned. I also looked in Christie’s autobiography, the edited version of her notebooks, the various biographies of her, and a few other reference works to see if there was anything there too. Once I had a (very) long list, it was just a case of whittling it down with Ben to the 40ish places we could fit on the map, and then trying to write entertaining accounts of them in the space I had. I found that her short story collections were an especially fruitful place to look, because she often used that format to send her characters to lots of different places in a single volume.
What were the challenges involved in finding out how locations in Christie’s stories were inspired by real life places?
Sometimes I was lucky, and there was a note or letter from Christie herself about how a real life place inspired something in her books — Marple in Greater Manchester is a good example of this, because she replied to a letter from a fan once and confirmed that she used the name of this town for her spinster sleuth after a visit there with her sister in 1929. In the case of The Hollow, she actually says in the dedication which house with a swimming pool was the basis for the one in the book. In other cases, it was possible to see from the map included in the front of the book that the fictional locations mapped very closely on to a real one (as with the Devon towns of Kingsbridge and Salcombe becoming Saltington and Saltcreek in Towards Zero). On occasion, Christie defined her made up places in relation to real ones, so it is possible to work out what the inspiration was using a map. There were some frustrating instances, though, where it just isn’t possible to be sure whether a real life place was the model for a fictional one, because there’s no clear evidence. Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead is a good example of this, there are a few strong candidates for the “real” version but nothing definitive as far as I was able to find. Not the kind of neat conundrum that faces a detective in a book, but all too common in real life!
What was the most surprising thing you learnt on the project?
Just how incredibly productive Christie was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I had never looked at her books in chronological order before, and it wasn’t until I did for this project that I realised that she was writing two or even three books a year in the early years of WW2. She explains in her autobiography that this was because her husband was away with the armed forces and most of her friends had left London because of the Blitz, so she had nothing to do in the evenings except write.
Which place on the map would you most like to go to on holiday?
The Imperial Hotel at Torquay! I had a trip there booked for Easter 2020 which sadly had to be cancelled because of Covid, and I really hope I get to go eventually. The hotel itself appears in several Christie books under various guises and obviously there’s lots of related sightseeing to do in the area.
Alongside the map, Agatha Christie’s England also comes with two lovely postcards which only add to the product’s overall aesthetic qualities. This is definitely an item to be valued as an object, as well as for the information it contains. There are lots of lovely details, with even the edges of the outer cover featuring quotes from Christie. Reading and soaking in this map reminded me of why I much prefer in print reading materials, as Agatha Christie’s England provides you with a delightfully tactile experience. The colour scheme is well thought out and I felt it achieved the balance of being eye catching without becoming garish and the visuals very much evoke Christie’s fictional worlds.
This is a perfect gift for oneself as well as for others and with Christmas coming up this item is an absolute must for the Agatha Christie fan in your life!
Source: Review Copy (Herb Lester Associates)